Summer movies and escapism have always gone together like popcorn and artificial butter substitute, but this year the dream factory seems to have short-circuited. Instead of serving up soothing respites from an all-too-real world where nobody can find a job and no one can agree on anything, Hollywood's message seems to be: You think that's bad? Let me tell you, brother, it could be a whole lot worse.
How much worse? Well, in movie after movie, we are transported to distant worlds, only to have them -- and, by extension, us -- threatened with total annihilation.
In 'Cowboys & Aliens,' out this week, a motley group of plainspeople are forced to set aside their differences and unite against an invading army of aliens whose handling of detainees makes Dick Cheney look like an Amnesty International chapter leader. These otherworldly visitors also have far more powerful guns than their human adversaries, making it seem entirely plausible that they will succeed in their plan of enslaving the entire human race.
Oddly enough, that's what the bad robots in Michael Bay's gleefully nonsensical 'Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon' are after, too. They want Shia LaBeouf and his fellow carbon life forms to rebuild the planet the Autobots and Decepticons blew to smithereens in a partisan disagreement that was presumably far more valid than the debt-ceiling fight now consuming our capital. While their plan is ultimately thwarted, they do succeed in reducing Chicago to rubble, which, coincidentally, is something John Boehner reportedly threatened to do during closed-door talks with the president just last week.
Everywhere you look at the movies this summer, there are evildoers trying to take over the world and exploit it for their own nefarious purposes. The screenwriters behind 'Captain America' never quite manage to explain what the heck Hugo Weaving's Red Skull plans to do with the world once he's conquered it, but they are quite explicit about his plans: He has a plane full of nuclear-looking bombs upon which someone has helpfully written the names of major American cities. (Germans do love a good labeling system.)
Even at the art house, that reliable source of fantasies involving elaborately dressed women and the men whose fortunes they wish to wed, filmmakers are venting their bladders all over our escapist fantasies. The first three-fourths of Woody Allen's 'Midnight in Paris' are nothing short of nostalgic bliss: Owen Wilson's Gil is just as eager to escape to an idealist past -- in his case, 1920s Paris -- as any overworked, underpaid American moviegoer would be. But then Woody lays a heavy lesson on his hapless protagonist: To the people who lived through it, the 1920s were just as much of a bummer as the 2010s are to us. They want to escape to the 1890s, and those people aren't satisfied either. Mon dieu.
And then there's Terence Malick's 'The Tree of Life.' Audience members hoping for a nice, relaxing Brad Pitt movie about a 1950s family bonding over barbecue in the Texas suburbs are instead transported back to the beginning of time. Hey, you think it's difficult dealing with a delinquent mortgage? Try being a microbe clinging to Earth's molten crust during a meteor shower.
Look, we get it: Times are tough, and Hollywood is responding the only way it knows how -- by channeling our frustrations into ludicrously elaborate and expensive pyrotechnical sequences. And when you think about it, all those attacking aliens are a pretty good metaphor for the problems we face. As with collateralized debt obligations, we have no idea who sent them, why they're here, or how to stop them from destroying our civilization.
Still, maybe Hollywood is zigging when it should be zagging on the escapism question. To our minds, the best getaway of the summer is still 'Bridesmaids,' whose protagonist (played by Kristen Wiig) responds to economic hardship by acting like a brat, moping around in sweatpants and wrecking her best friend's bridal shower, only to discover the healing power of Wilson Phillips' 'Hold On.'
After all, the end of the world as we know it may indeed be nigh, if the betting line on America's AAA credit rating is any judge. Do we have to give up our air-conditioned holidays too?